Obituary: Professor Struther Arnott CBE, FRS, FRSE, FiBiol, FRSC, university principal, molecular biologist and chemist

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Born: 25 September, 1934, in Larkhall, Lancashire. Died: 22 April 2013 in Doncaster, aged 78

Professor Arnott, distinguished medical researcher and academician, arrived at St Andrews as principal in 1986 with fresh ideas and a determination to ensure Scotland’s oldest university became one of the leading centres of learning in Britain. As a scientist Professor Arnott was resolute in his belief that St Andrews re-established the research and scientific scholarship for which it was so long renowned. His own renown in the medical profession was concentrated on the early research into DNA.

Professor Jim Naismith, a colleague at St Andrews for some years, recalled Professor Arnott yesterday: “Struther was a transformational figure. He would never accept second best and that went for colleagues, students and St Andrews University.

“The international standing that the university enjoys today as a major seat of learning is thanks to Struther. I admired and respected him greatly… and he was blessed with a fine dash of old-fashioned courtesy.”

Struther Arnott attended Hamilton Academy and was then awarded the Cuthbertson Science Scholarship and the Lorimer Mathematical Scholarship at Glasgow University.

He qualified with a BSc and wrote his PhD while in Glasgow in the late 1960s. He remained in Glasgow and was a Demonstrator in Inorganic Chemistry (1957-59) before joining the research team at King’s College London, where he was Demonstrator in Physics.

In 1970 he was appointed Professor of Molecular Biology at Purdue University in Indiana, and while there he began his intensive research into DNA.

From 1970 to 1986 he was Professor of Biology at Purdue. The laboratories he founded there remain important centres and continue his invaluable research. His expertise in the structures of non-fully crystalline materials has greatly influenced molecular physicists and biologists worldwide.

In 1986 he arrived at St Andrews with a proud affirmation of his Scottish background and a desire to boost the standing of St Andrews.

“I am a Scotsman, a scientist and an internationalist,” he said. “My analysis is that St Andrews wants its native roots to be respected, its Scottishness preserved, but not in any parochial way. St Andrews wants to be a comprehensive university, committed to the arts and science. And it wants to maintain a world-class reputation.”

It was significant that he included the sciences, and his own international reputation boosted the university’s reputation and he soon attracted senior and respected academics to the Fife coast.

Professor Arnott’s methods were not always popular. In 1989, for example, he was accused of “academic piracy” when he appointed Professor Paul Wilkinson, professor of International Relations at Aberdeen University, to a similar chair at St Andrews. Some considered that it introduced American-style recruitment methods to Scotland.

Professor Arnott replied: “He is the sort of person we would like to see here.”

It was this relentless determination to improve St Andrews by recruiting first-class academic staff and employing the most able managers that ensured St Andrews became a truly international university.

Professor Arnott was devoted to the university and the city. Although a member of the Royal and Ancient – the principal of the university is traditionally made a member – he was not known to be a keen golfer.

“He continued his research and had a heavy lecture schedule here,” Professor Naismith recalled.

“He was a strong figure and certainly defended vehemently his point of view in a debate but he was a good and patient listener. He was a kindly and generous man. If you went into his office he would always start the conversation in an informal manner – asking about your family.

“As a scientist, he was beyond reproach and a delight to talk to.”

This respect was reflected by the statement yesterday from the current principal and vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson. She said Professor Arnott was “widely regarded as an intellectual giant whose decisive and robust style of management laid the foundations for what has become a world-renowned science faculty in St Andrews”.

She added: “Struther Arnott was a principal who believed that St Andrews could and should be the equal of the best in the world.”

Hinting at the way some people responded to his methods, she added: “Apparently, no-one ever accused him of self-effacing modesty, yet the closer one got to him the more evident was his old-fashioned kindness and sense of decency.”

Professor Arnott was a fine and fluent lecturer and however complex the subject he treated his students with respect.

He returned to St Andrews earlier this year to deliver a lecture in a hall that has been named after him. He spoke without notes on the history of research into DNA and was enthusiastically applauded by all those who attended, as the audience did at the Adam Smith Institute in 1987 when he lectured on Industry Matters.

It was fitting that The Times, in its Good Universities Guide of 1997, hailed St Andrews as “Scotland’s Finest” and mentioned that this had been achieved by “transparent planning, robust finances, novel fund raising and investment in modern facilities while preserving St Andrews’ historic image”.

There is little doubt that Professor Arnott restored the reputation of St Andrews University and the words in The Times provide proof of the drive and leadership he provided in his 14 years there. It is a fitting legacy.

His later posts included Haddow Professor at the Chester Beatty Cancer Research in 2000 – 2003 and Visiting Professor at Imperial College in London.

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1988, Fellow of the Royal Society in 1985 and awarded a CBE in 1996.

Professor Arnott contributed learned papers to numerous scientific and medical. He was a keen ornithologist and spent many hours walking the sand dunes in Fife with his binoculars.

In 1970 Professor Arnott married Greta Edwards. She and their two sons survive him.